Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist has been ferried on corporate aircraft more than most other politicians in Washington over the past five years, according to a study released this week.
The Senate majority leader's travels were ranked seventh by PoliticalMoneyLine, a company based in Washington that tracks money in politics. He reimbursed companies $69,030 for flying on their planes from 2001 to 2005.
Frist's most frequent corporate hosts were pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott Laboratories, Pfizer Corp. and Schering-Plough. He reimbursed the three $22,656 for use of their aircraft, the report states.
Other Tennessee congressmen on the list were Rep. John Tanner, D-Union City, who reimbursed companies $33,168, and Rep. Harold Ford, D-Memphis, who reimbursed $8,675. Most of Tanner's reimbursements went to Swisher International Inc., the cigar maker, and most of Ford's were to Memphis-based Federal Express Corp.
Some object to federal office holders using corporate aircraft, because they are required to reimburse the company only for the cost of first-class commercial airfare, far less than the true cost of a charter.
"The question is, what did they get in return for that?" said Kent Cooper, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine.
One answer is access, said Larry Noble, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group. "It often provides the corporation the chance to have a lobbyist or corporate executive go along to talk about issues important to the corporation."
Frist dismissed any impropriety connected with the use of corporate aircraft. He ranked so high because he is majority leader, he said.
"I spend a lot of time traveling around the country carrying out my responsibilities directly to them (GOP senators), directly to their constituents who they represent," Frist said yesterday.
Janey Rudd, spokeswoman for Frist's Volunteer PAC, said corporate aircraft were used when commercial flights won't accommodate multiple stops in a short period of time.
The idea that flights on corporate aircraft translate into favors is false, Frist said. "That would be the assumption I could be bought. I don't need to be bought," he said.
The reimbursements do not state when the trips took place, their destination, who else was on board and their purpose.
Several reimbursements by Volunteer PAC, totaling $4,683, went to Conquest Joint Venture. The business was set up with former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker to purchase a four-passenger airplane for use by the two men, said Fred Marcum, senior adviser to Baker.
Overall, the study found that 192 federal candidates reimbursed corporations $2.23 million for use of corporate aircraft between 2001 and 2005.
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